Still no decisive word from federal investigators as to the extent the Chinese spy balloon amassed intelligence while drifting above Montana’s nuclear missile complex last February.
Meanwhile, I’ve stumbled onto an intriguing previously “secret” CIA document declassified in 1995 that surrounds the “simulation of [an] assumed enemy effort to plot Minuteman silo positions” in Montana.
Headlined “Spy Mission to Montana,” the eight-page report begins: “As the flight out of Salt Lake City headed northward toward Butte and Great Falls, the three of us viewed the desolate … surface patterns below … with some apprehension.
“Our mission during the next ten days would take us into the equally strange and sparsely settled terrain east of the Rockies in Montana, where a Minuteman missile complex was being installed. We were about to undertake a ground survey of Minuteman sites, making hurried observations with small geodetic instruments such as a covert agent might use to ascertain more or less precisely their locations. The time was late July 1962, shortly before the first missile was placed in its silo east of Great Falls.”
So wrote Walter W. Romig on behalf of the three clandestine U.S. government officials, two from the CIA and the other from the Army Map Service.
The document stated that America’s enemies presumably possessed the best large-scale maps and geodetic data covering the United States. However, missile launch sites were “purposely excluded,” and consequently the exact coordinates of the numerous launch silos in Montana could only be obtained through “photography or direct observation” (two major concerns federal officials had with the Chinese balloon incident).
Romig revealed that only a few of the top brass at Malmstrom Air Force Base “were wilting of our mission, and the … covert activity called for us to avoid recognition and to rent a car in Butte to use during the survey.”
He added that Boeing was the prime contractor for construction of the missile complex “and was still mainly responsible for security; none of the sites had been officially turned over to the Air Force.”
That said, the three undercover operators thought it quite probable that their unscheduled and furtive use of surveying instruments around the sites “might arouse someone’s suspicion to the point of challenge.
“Just what the security response might be was both of special interest to the Air Force and of personal concern to the three of us,” Romig observed. “At least we were given badges authorizing our presence around the complex that we could use in the event of detention by local police or Boeing security patrols.”
Montana’s budding Minuteman complex, the document noted, embraced an area of more than 6,000 square miles, 60 miles west to 120 miles east of Great Falls. It was designed to deploy 150 missiles in hardened silos, grouped into 15 flights, each with 10 missiles sites situated around control centers, the latter spaced five to eight miles apart and connected by underground communications lines.
Romig additionally described every launch site as being two to three acres in area, rectangular with the longer dimension running north and south, and fenced against human or animal intrusion. The silos were uniformly to the south and west of the center.
“A conspicuous feature,” he cautioned, “was two commercial power poles, one carrying a large transformer, at the edge of each enclosure.”
Before setting off on the spy mission, the three men were provided preliminary reconnaissance by helicopter, pointing out in their report that any foreign intelligence agent could simply board any commercial flight into and out of Great Falls, “which traverse the launch complex at fairly low level.”
Over the course of eight days, the trio recorded detailed observations and measurements at more than 50 missile sites, traveled some 1,500 miles in the rented car, and bunked overnight in local motels.
“Two of us worked with the instruments while the third man drove the car, made odometer readings, took photographs of the sites, and kept watch for approaching cars,” Romig wrote.
“We took reasonable precautions to avoid suspicion,” he continued, describing how the trio limited their time at observation points to ten minutes, while waiting for any approaching vehicle to pass before removing equipment from the car.
And they weren’t only concerned with official vehicles belonging to the Air Force and Boeing.
“Local inhabitants were curious at times about what we were doing there, possibly more because of how it might affect them and their land than in suspicion of subversive activity,” the document stated. “Our field trip ended without mishap. Although we thought on several occasions that our car was being followed, no one ever stopped us for questioning.”
It wasn’t long after their departure, though, that Uncle Sam’s spies were counting their lucky stars.
“As our plane headed eastward from Great Falls at the end of the survey, a fellow passenger, an employee on the construction project, remarked that several people down there at the sites had been shot, presumably because the local inhabitants sometimes resented intrusions on their property,” Romig revealed.
“This information vindicated, as the last missile site dwindled from our view, the premonitory sense of danger with which we had approached the ten-day Montana venture and left us relieved that our survey was over.”
John McCaslin is a longtime print and broadcast journalist and author.
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